On Assimilation and Anxiety: Growing Up in Three Different Countries

At the beginning of each course, I usually ask my students where they’re from and what brought them to Switzerland. Believe me, I’ve heard a range of interesting stories but at the end of the day it all boils down to either better opportunities or living closer to their loved ones. Since I think that it’s crucial as a teacher to form a genuine connection with your students instead of just being “that one German teacher”, I also share my story with them. By sharing and identifying with each other’s stories, you become more approachable and eventually you should consider attaching the title
“psychologist/ life coach” to your linguistics degree, which turns out to be my favourite part of the job. Therefore, I’ll share my story one more time:

As soon as I open my mouth, people realize that I’m German. I was born and raised in Germany until the age of nine. My family lived in the same house as my grandparents, which my grandfather built with his own two hands. Every evening, he would have his “Feierabend-Bier”, which is basically the beer you have after finishing work, and watch a football match. It does not get more stereotypical than this, I know. All in all, I grew up speaking my mother tongue with a German dialectal twist to it. Interestingly, “pure” High German was therefore always reserved for school contexts and thus I don’t perceive it as the language which is closest to my heart.


When I was nine, my father was offered a job in the US. Luckily, my father spoke English already, which was however not true for myself. As a consequence, we started taking lessons. Unfortunately, these lessons were restricted to filling out grammar exercises, which got us (surprise!) nowhere. So, when we arrived in the US, my parents made the decision to send us to a normal school right away. This time (to no one’s surprise), we soaked up English in less than three months since we actually had
to use it every single day. German was now restricted to our family, whereas English was used for making new friends.

After two years in the US, the company my father worked for decided to cut jobs, which forced us to go back to Germany. Shortly after, my father was offered a job in Switzerland. Again, we squeezed our home in a van and hit the road. Since I grew up speaking German, I initially thought language wasn’t going to be an issue this time, which turned out to be not true. I had to realize very quickly that Swiss German does not equal High German, no matter how you turn and twist it (additionally, we lived in the Rumantsch-speaking part of Switzerland). After three full months, I was finally able to understand what people were saying around me. I always wanted to take the next step and try to speak Swiss German myself, but some sort of anxiety regarding people’s reaction held me back. At the end, I decided to give it a go when I started university. Until today, I still have a German accent, which I’m constantly working on. However, my anxiety was absolutely unnecessary (surprise!). Literally everybody reacted very positively and appreciated my efforts to integrate, even though I could get around with High German easily.


In conclusion, psychological barriers to use a new language are often merely products of our own fear regarding people’s reactions. Once you decide not to care about these things as much, life becomes a lot easier and a rapid learning process kicks in. By using stories as a sort of connection
mechanism, I hope to achieve that my students worry less about people’s perception of them and focus on the positive aspects of learning a new language, namely feeling at home in a foreign country.

So, what’s your story?

PS: My brother speaks German, English, Rumantsch and Japanese. This might be a story worth telling next!

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